There is improvement almost everywhere you look with the 49ers these days, but perhaps no greater…
49ers rewind: Staley's status will be watched
The 49ers were already having a devil of a time protecting quarterback Alex Smith, and that challenge might increase exponentially against the Steelers on Monday night if the team doesn't have Staley.
In their prime-time Thanksgiving night loss in Baltimore, Smith was sacked nine times. In the last two games against the far less imposing Rams and Cardinals, the 49ers allowed another nine sacks. Arizona had five sacks as the Niners suffered its only loss this year to a team that currently has a losing record.
The loss of Staley made this loss sting even worse. The starting left tackle apparently was hurt on one of the first plays of the game, but he remained on the field for several more plays before finally departing to the sideline for the rest of the afternoon.
"He didn't realize exactly how hurt he was," coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. "You don't always know, as a football player, how dinged up you are."
The NFL now has a protocol that teams must follow when a player incurs a head injury. Staley will go through a series of evaluations before the 49ers return to practice later this week before it will be determined if he could be available to play against the Steelers.
"You guys say "protocol," big word," Harbaugh said. "Encompasses a lot of things. Very nebulous. The player has got to show signs that he is hurt for the doctors, the trained professionals to see that. It's got to be communicated by the player and sometimes you don't know. You get something, you're trying to shake it off. You see that all time. When we realized it, he came out. I don't know how many plays it was after the first play that he came out, but it wasn't a half a dozen or so."
After the upset in Arizona, this game against Pittsburgh now becomes huge in the 49ers' chase to secure a playoff bye. The Niners dropped to 10-3 and into a tie with New Orleans for the NFC's second-best record behind defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay, which remains undefeated at 13-0.
For now, the Niners have the tie-breaker advantage over the Saints because they have more conference wins and fewer conference losses. However, the Niners risk falling to the third seed behind the Saints – and losing the first-round bye they currently control – if New Orleans passes them with a better record.
Monday's game against the Steelers will be the last home game for the 49ers, who are 6-1 this season at Candlestick Park. Then they finish the season with road games against the Seahawks and Rams.
By contrast, the Saints finish with the Vikings on the road and then have the Falcons and Panthers at home.
It may mean the 49ers will have to win out to get a playoff bye.
"(We'll) see how this team responds to adversity," Harbaugh said. "We haven't had a whole lot of it this year."
Consequently, what was once the team's most irrelevant game of December in the upcoming Monday night nonconference matchup against Pittsburgh now becomes just as important as all the others. They 49ers need all the wins they can get for playoff positioning.
TRENDING: The 49ers' red-zone woes have now reached epic proportions. The team has scored just three touchdowns in their last 18 trips in the red zone. In their 21-19 loss to the Cardinals, the 49ers were inside the Arizona three times and the result? Three field goals.
"We attacked it, we went after it, we didn't convert," a clearly frustrated Harbaugh said.
Quarterback Alex Smith was asked if they needed to groom a red-zone receiver. Smith said the team didn't need a player per se, but they needed something to hang their hat on. That player used to be tight end Vernon Davis, but offensive coordinator Greg Roman admitted last week that once the team reaches the opponent's 20, Davis gets double covered.
Roman also said that the team needs to run better in the red zone to loosen up the pass.
LINEUP WATCH: The 49ers gave up three touchdowns to a 6-7 team without its starting quarterback. But this loss can't be pinned on linebacker Larry Grant, who did an admirable job of replacing Willis in the middle, just like he did the week before against the Rams. Grant led the team with nine tackles – he also led the team in tackles against St. Louis – and had a pass defensed.
Receiver Kyle Williams might continue to eat into Braylon Edwards' playing time. Against Arizona, Williams caught four passes for 42 yards. Edwards didn't have any receptions despite being targeted twice. In his last three games, Edwards has been targeted 10 times and has one reception for five yards.
--- LB Aldon Smith's third-quarter sack of John Skelton gives Smith 10.5 sacks for the season. It's the first time a 49er has recorded double digits in sacks since Andre Carter in 2002.
--- RB Frank Gore had only 10 carries in this game and looked gimpy after the game in the locker room. Nonetheless, he finished with 72 yards rushing to pass the 1,000-yard barrier for the fifth time in six seasons.
--- K David Akers is just three points away from tying Jerry Rice's single-season scoring record (138). Akers scored 13 of San Francisco's 19 points against the Cardinals. Akers has scored 99 more points than any other 49er this season. The 13th-year veteran has accounted for 44 percent of San Francisco's 307 total points.
--- S Dashon Goldson now has five interceptions in his last seven games. He is now tied for the team lead with cornerback Carlos Rogers.